Tributes pour in for civil rights icon John Lewis
John Lewis, 1940 - 2020 | Mark Humphrey/AP

WASHINGTON–From Barack Obama and Jesse Jackson to Richard Trumka and Black Lives Matter, tributes poured in over the weekend of July 18-19 for Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the longtime civil rights leader and “conscience of the Congress” who died late at night on July 17 of pancreatic cancer. He was 80, and had represented Atlanta in Congress starting in 1987.

All but two cited Lewis’s courage, with some adding his “good trouble, necessary trouble” statement, in the fight for equal rights—political and economic—for African Americans. They noted Lewis was the youngest speaker at the historic 1963 March on Washington, and a leader of the voting rights march and victim of an almost fatal beating by Alabama troopers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma in 1965.

“We want our freedom, and we want it now,” Lewis, then 23, told the 1963 crowd.

One exception: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who has deep-sixed a House-passed bill to restore teeth to the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Democrats, civil rights and workers’ leaders used their statements to demand McConnell bring it to the Senate floor for a vote, and rename it for Lewis.

The Selma attacks directly led to that original 1965 law, which the five-person GOP-named U.S. Supreme Court majority emasculated several years ago. GOP-run states passed Jim Crow-like “voter ID” laws disenfranchising people of color, workers, women, the young and the old. Lewis spent his career fighting such legalized racism, others said. McConnell didn’t mention it in lauding Lewis.

The other exception was GOP President Donald Trump. His initial proclamation, on the morning of July 18, called for flags to fly at half-staff only for that day “as a mark of respect for the memory and longstanding public service of Rep. John Lewis,” without saying why. Lewis, citing Trump’s racism, refused to attend his inauguration in 2017.

After 50 tweets on other topics, and a round of golf, Trump tweeted at 2:05 p.m. on July 18 that he was “saddened to hear the news of civil rights hero John Lewis passing.” And after a long statement from the Congressional Black Caucus, Chair Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., verbally retorted to Trump: “Please let us mourn in peace.” CBC’s official statement, with details of Lewis’s career, is at www.cbc.house.gov.

Even Gov. Brian Kemp, R-Ga., elected to the state’s top office after using that U.S. Supreme Court ruling to, as Secretary of State, toss hundreds of thousands of Blacks off Peach State voting rolls, was more tactful than Trump. So was Vice President Mike Pence. Kemp ordered Georgia flags to stay at half-staff until after Lewis’s burial. The coronavirus pandemic has scrambled funeral arrangements.

Everyone else was much more gracious, and evoked the civil rights cause for which Dr. Martin Luther King gave his life in 1968 and for which Lewis, chairman and co-founder of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, almost gave his three years before at the bridge in Selma. Several weeks ago there came calls to rename the bridge for Lewis, as Selma, population 20,750, is 80% Black, and as Pettus was a leader of the Ku Klux Klan.

“What gives each new generation purpose is to take up the unfinished work of the last and carry it further to speak out for what’s right, to challenge an unjust status quo, and to imagine a better world,” said Obama. “John Lewis made that his life’s work.”

Thanked him in person

The former president thanked Lewis in person before Obama’s first inauguration in 2009, saying that without Lewis’s sacrifices, Obama would not have been able to attain the Oval Office. He later awarded Lewis the Congressional Medal of Freedom, the top U.S. civilian honor. “We will miss him dearly.”

“He loved this country so much that he risked his life and his blood so that it might live up to its promise. And through the decades, he not only gave all of himself to the cause of freedom and justice, but inspired generations that followed to try to live up to his example.”

Obama said the last public forum he held with Lewis was a virtual town hall, due to the coronavirus pandemic, talking with young activists leading the nationwide peaceful demonstrations against systemic and endemic racism.

“He could not have been prouder of their efforts—of a new generation standing up for freedom and equality, a new generation intent on voting and protecting the right to vote, a new generation running for political office. I told him that all those young people—of every race, from every background and gender and sexual orientation—they were his children,” Obama said of their private talk.

“Terribly sad to hear of the passing of civil rights icon Congressman John Lewis,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka tweeted. “The world is a better place because of the sacrifices this great man made. We have lost a champion for working people, and the entire labor movement sends condolences to all his loved ones.”

Both presumed Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, Ind-Vt., who served for decades in Congress with Lewis, tweeted their praise.

“I know of no man with more courage than John Lewis. He was a giant walking among us. When I saw him, I couldn’t help but think one thing: ‘I haven’t done enough,’” Biden tweeted. “May his life and legacy inspire every one of us to strive for justice, equality, and what is right.” Added Sanders: “John Lewis inspired millions to fight for justice. His courage helped transform this country. He won’t ever be forgotten by those who believe America can change when the people stand together and demand it.”

Other union leaders lauding Lewis included Teamsters President Jim Hoffa, AFSCME President Lee Saunders, NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia and the three top officers of the Teachers (AFT): President Randi Weingarten, Secretary-Treasurer Loretta Johnson, and Executive Vice President Evelyn DeJesus. Lawmakers praising Lewis included Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Kamala Harris, D-Calif. Both urged McConnell to bring up the voting rights bill and rename it for Lewis, too. So did Bass.

“We met as fellow protesters in 1960,” the Rev. Jackson reminisced. “Two weeks ago, John agreed to co-chair this year’s voter registration drive. He was the gift that kept on giving…In the 1960s, we broke out of the bubble of segregation. John became the valedictorian of our class.”

“John Lewis is what patriotism and courage look like. He sacrificed and personifies a New Testament prophet.” Fellow civil rights leader “Andrew Young and I prayed for John Lewis & C.T. Vivian as we convened those who I went to jail with in 1960.” Vivian, another King-era leader, also died July 17.

See you in the morning

“Good Night, I will see you in the morning. #GoodTrouble,” Jackson concluded to Lewis.

“For C.T. Vivian and John Lewis, a jail cell was as familiar as a police officer’s baton,” Black Lives Matter said. “For their human rights work, cops arrested these activist ministers more times than they cared to count and suffered several brutal beatings at the hands of law enforcement.”

“These courageous human beings, now among our greatest ancestors, disrupted the status quo—commerce/business-as-usual—FOR YEARS before anyone took notice. They were attacked, despised, and criticized relentlessly by mainstream society and their own people, but they persisted.”

“Perseverance, tenacity, and determination (among other things) in this struggle link us to them. None of us are free until all of us are free, so we commit daily to the work of making Black Lives Matter in policy and practice knowing our struggle for justice is a part of the same continuum of human rights struggle led by those before us. Thank you.”

Several speakers, including Hoffa and Saunders, mentioned Southern racists’ frequent arrests of Lewis and other Freedom Riders. Police arrested Lewis 40 times, including after the beating on the bridge.

“We have lost one of the greatest Americans of our time,” Saunders said. Lewis “was willing to lay down his life to make his country better and fairer. His unflinching courage in staring down oppression and injustice was awe-inspiring. His practice of civil disobedience and non-violent resistance was trailblazing. His pursuit of the beloved community was unwavering.

“Not repeated arrests, not tear gas or brutal beatings, could keep him from persisting in the fight for civil rights and human dignity. From the Freedom Rides to Bloody Sunday to the floor of the House, he never relented in the struggle…He always led the way in defending labor unions and the rights of working people. He was a man of great personal gentility and modesty, but that did not stop him from being an agitator, disruptor, and unstoppable force for change.

“As we take the next steps to repair the nation’s racial breach and continue the march of progress, we will stand on John Lewis’ sturdy shoulders. We will keep getting in ‘good trouble’ in his name. Rest in power.”

Lewis “gave hope to the entire nation,” Hoffa said. “He never backed down when it came to the rights and equality of Black people and the disadvantaged, be it at the ballot box or in the workplace. He never stopped fighting, and he never lost sight of the ultimate goal of equality for all.”

“He was a happy warrior looking for ‘good trouble’ to protest the wrongs of racism and systemic oppression…He broadened the struggle for civil rights to include all like-minded supporters, regardless of race, ethnicity, or economic status.

Could always count on him

“His deep commitment to civil rights made him a staunch supporter for workers’ rights…We could always count on John Lewis to stand with workers and deliver. He understood on a deep and fundamental level that human rights and workers’ rights are one and the same. John Lewis was a true hero of our times, a trailblazer in the fight for justice and equality. His steadfast opposition to discrimination and intimidation anywhere made him one of labor’s strongest allies and closest supporters.”

“John Lewis was known as the ‘Conscience of the Congress,’ and even that esteemed title does not fully describe the exceptional nature” of his accomplishments, said NEA’s Eskelsen-Garcia. “His life was dedicated to the pursuit of racial justice and freedom for all. His actions transformed the nation. He truly believed in the promise of this country, a more perfect union in which all are created equal. He loved America and was willing to risk his life for his country in order to ensure it fully lived up to its promise …John Lewis never rested, nor shall we in carrying on this pursuit.”

“Lewis taught us how to be justice warriors—how to fight for freedom, how to sacrifice for justice, how to build a community that works toward a better life for all. That was ‘good trouble,’” Weingarten said. “His great moral courage is at the heart of everything we do—every fight we take on, every struggle for equality, and every wrong we try to right.

“He was a giant in every sense of the word, and all of us who work to repair the world owe him an enormous debt. As we continue on our journey for justice, we must hold dear his conscience, his bravery, his humility, and his steadfast belief in the power of action. May his memory be a blessing—and a revolution.”

Praise and memories also came from House Progressive Caucus co-chair Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., and other lawmakers, Black, Latinx, and white. First-term Rep. Lauren Underwood, D-Ill., added she was still learning from Lewis, whom she first met when interning on Capitol Hill just over a decade ago.

“He spent his entire life, up until the very end, fighting for what was right and just. He believed in an America that could progress, be better, and live up to her highest ideals; and he lived his life fighting to make it so. May we revere him, may we continue to learn from him, and may we forever fight for the America he believed in,” Rep. Underwood said.

Lewis “fought to rid our nation of racism, push for lasting equality, end poverty and hunger, eradicate gun violence, establish the first national African American museum in Washington, and ensure every person has unfettered access to the ballot box,” added Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio. “Congressman Lewis was a fighter who gave hope to the hopeless and a voice to the voiceless.”

Typical tweeted GOP praise, from Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., drew tweeted flak from constituents, calling the Republicans hypocrites for praising Lewis while following Trump.

“An American icon, his legacy of courage & sacrifice will continue to inspire us, his moral integrity & dedication to justice will continue to be our guiding light,” Kinzinger wrote. “When have you worked for justice in the last few months?” one tweeter replied. “Peaceful protesters were gassed and you went on and on about statues, churches, and flags.”


CONTRIBUTOR

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.

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